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International Women's Day 2024 Why housing is a feminist issue

Low pay and spiralling rental costs mean women are all to often trapped in appalling accommodation, writes LYNNE WALSH

CHILDREN are dying in unsuitable accommodation, women are prey to exploitative landlords, and even more homes are being lost from Britain’s depleted social housing stock.

Politicians and commentators speak of this “housing crisis” to such an extent that the term seems normalised. For many living through it, the situation is catastrophic; it’s life-threatening. It is hell on earth.

There is no shortage of activity, from government promises to think tanks’ reports, to charities straining to plug the gaps and pick up pieces.

Women are affected more than men, for reasons which demonstrate that the housing arena is a microcosm of the global problem of abject inequality.

UK charity Shelter says: “Women face the realities of the housing crisis every day. Whether it’s someone who’s fleeing domestic abuse but has nowhere to stay, or a hard-working single mother who can’t feed her family and pay her rent.

“The lack of decent, genuinely affordable social homes can also force survivors to choose between staying in an unsafe situation or becoming homeless in order to leave an abusive partner. 

“Being unable to afford a deposit on a home in the private rented sector, or worrying about the disruption on children by being forced to move away or into temporary accommodation makes this choice even harder.”

When emergency accommodation (EA) is found, its unsuitability can be deadly, as this week’s news reveals. The households in temporary accommodation all-party parliamentary group last year reported that 34 children had died in shelters for people who were homeless, since April 2019. Data from the National Child Mortality Database has shown this week that infant fatalities in this type of housing rose to 55 in the four years to March 2023.

“The loss of 55 lives, equivalent to two classrooms of children, serves as a stark indictment of our housing crisis,” says Justlife chief executive Simon Gale. 

The Justlife Foundation supports people in desperate need of a roof over their heads. Their front-line workers have reported that “the constant fear of violence in your home is exactly what [women] have tried to move away from, leading them into homelessness and temporary accommodation. These women are far too often placed in mixed-gender accommodation, where they may have to share facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms with men; some of whom have a history of violence, severe mental health issues or substance misuse problems. It can be a very volatile environment.”

One worker said: “I’ve got a client who’s in EA right now, she’s been beaten up really badly in the corridors, there’s no CCTV, and her blood is all over the walls. That is her reality. She walks past it every day. That is the space she’s made to live in.”

Crisis has also reported that women may be forced to sleep with someone for accommodation, known as “survival sex.” In 2022, landlord Christopher Cox was the first to be convicted for “sex for rent” offences. His online advertisements were aimed at “a girl in need” and asked “if you are a young girl 16-plus who is stuck at home and wants to get away or maybe you are homeless seeking a safe route out, I have a room available in my home for a young girl.”

Another big cause of women’s struggle for housing is, of course, the pervading inequality in pay.

Dr Melissa Spinoza, writing for the Scottish feminist organisation Engender, said: “Women are more susceptible to poverty and experience financial crises longer and more often. While the pay gap between women and men is important to address within organisations and industries, there is a larger conversation to be had about the gap in opportunities between genders and working and middle classes. 

“According to Living Wage Foundation, more women than men work in the lowest-paying industries, thus making less than the living wage. There have been some industries that have also reported that women face slower career progression than men. However, even if women could have more access and opportunity to higher paying careers and roles, women with families would still be expected to perform household work and unpaid labour. 

“This was highlighted during the pandemic, when many women were expected to do more of the educational work with their children, and attend to caregiving needs of parents, while also working from home.”

Part of the solution, according to Dr Spinoza, may be the toughest challenge of all, “When people, especially women from under-resourced and historically exploited communities, have genuine autonomy over choice and opportunities across societies, we can begin to prevent future crises.”

Greater evidence of women’s sex-based inequality comes from the Women’s Budget Group, specialists in putting feminism into economics and economics into feminism.

Its 2022 report said: “Because they earn less than men do and have less capital, women are particularly impacted by housing affordability. They are less likely to own their own homes: the median home in England costs over 12 times the median wage for women, as opposed to eight times the median wage for men.

“Private rental is unaffordable (defined as costing more than one-third of income) on women’s median earnings in every region in England, whereas men can afford every region except London. Average rents use up 43 per cent of a woman’s median earnings but 28 per cent of a man’s.”

What is to be done? As with many campaigns, a mix of grassroots work and governmental action should pave the way.

Greater Manchester Tenants’ Union (GMTU) is accomplished at the former.Spokeswoman Allison Fewtrell says: “We work on campaigning, demos, resisting unfair evictions — real ‘boots on the ground stuff.’

“We work collectively with tenants who come to us with renting issues. Rather than being an advice service or doing ‘casework,’ we encourage the tenant to challenge their landlord themselves, and we provide the training, support and extra voices behind the tenant. 

“We lobby MPs and local councillors. We were invited to consult on Andy Burnham’s Good Landlord Charter.

“We focus on political education of tenants, so they understand the power imbalance between tenants and landlords.”

GMTU is part of a movement which has launched a Renters’ Manifesto. Along with Generation Rent, London Renters Union, Acorn, Renters’ Rights London and the New Economics Foundation, they campaign for radical reform of private renting and a transformation of the housing system.

Demands include an end to unfair and illegal evictions, a move to open-ended tenancies, and the assurance of safe, health, decent homes. In a nutshell, they say: “It should be less profitable for landlords to break the rules than to follow them.”

With an election looming, the Women’s Budget Group’s demands should on the desks of every current MP hoping to keep their seats. New candidates should make sure their answers are ready.

The group says the government must prioritise the building of more social housing; restore the link between the Local Housing Allowance and actual rental prices; increase the number of women’s refuges and provide more funding for specialist domestic violence services; and consider housing as a right, rather than as a financial asset, as recently recommended by the United Nations.

The Labour Party has pledged to put social and council housing at the heart of Labour’s “secure homes” plan. At last year’s conference, Angela Rayner said: “Developers have been let off the hook and for too long allowed to wriggle out of their responsibilities to provide new social and affordable homes. Labour will robustly hold them to account to deliver on their obligations to deliver affordable housing.”

Rayner has also said recently: “Labour believes those who live in a council house should have the opportunity to own their own home. Working people should be able to buy the social home they rented for a reasonable discount.”

GMTU had a robust response: “Right to Buy completely undermines the finances for council housing. Councils will not risk taking on debt for an asset they can lose and be left with a bill to pay.

“The money that should be reinvested in maintaining council homes and building new ones goes to the most expensive subsidy for home ownership, and 40 per cent of homes lost under Right to Buy have ended up in the hands of private landlords.

“Right to Buy privatises public housing with profits often going to landlords. Even if Labour were promising unlimited money to build replacement homes, the land that is required is lost to private developers. Once it’s sold off the council will never get it back.”

It’s more than a century since then prime minister David Lloyd-George promised “Homes Fit for Heroes,” when the 1919 Housing Act promised 500,000 new houses. Although fewer than half were built initially, that legislation paved the way for the acts of 1924 and 1930. In all, local councils built a total of 1.1 million homes.

Should it soon be time for Homes fit for Heroines?

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